Surprised: Wordsworth on the Coexistence of Joy and Sorrow

Surprised by Joy
by William Wordsworth

Surprised by joy – impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss? – That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

William Wordsworth wrote this sonnet two years after the sudden death of his four-year-old daughter, Catherine, but in it he grieves as though not a day has gone by. When he cries out in misery, “How could I forget thee?” it is both rhetorical – indicative of how deeply he loved her – and guilt-stricken, having in fact let her slip from his mind. Wordsworth specialized in writing poetry of recollection, but even he finds himself running against the human limitations of memory. As much as he wills himself to, he cannot stay purely mentally or emotionally focused on his “most grievous loss.” Amidst such sorrow, how could Wordsworth have begun with the phrase “Surprised by joy” were it not true to his experience? As he “[turns] to share the transport,” even with the reader through the words of the sonnet, we must draw the surprising conclusion that joy and sorrow can be, and indeed often are, found together.

At first glance, the sonnet appears to be a portrait of spiritual barrenness. Though Wordsworth was an Anglican, in this poem there is no stock Christian imagery – neither angels nor any mention of God. What Wordsworth does give us are joy and sorrow, stripped painfully bare. Joy, the power that “beguiled” him into forgetting about his daughter, consumes him entirely. He describes himself as “impatient as the wind” – unstoppable. However, he becomes overtaken by sorrow before long. We can picture him standing forlorn over “the silent tomb,” a stark picture of despair. Nonetheless, in the moment that he remembers Catherine’s death – “Oh!” – joy and sorrow coexist. And this is exactly what we find in the Christian life. The apostle Paul expressed that very intermingling of opposites when describing himself as “sorrowful, but always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Hence, we must recognize that Wordsworth’s condition in “Surprised by Joy” is not spiritual impoverishment. Far from it – it is what one scholar calls Wordsworthian poetry of “religious experience – visionary intimations offered as one man’s heartfelt testimony” (Ulmer 30).

How can someone experience joy and sorrow at the same time? To make sense of the apparent contradiction, we need to look more closely at what joy is. The very coexistence of joy and sorrow indicates that there is more to joy than happiness. It is true that in the Bible, joy often appears alongside gladness, and the two are closely related. However, Christians believe that joy does not depend on circumstances the way happiness does. We see this in the book of Galatians, where Paul lists joy with love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control as “the fruit of the Spirit [of God]” (Galatians 5:22-23). These are not moods, but attitudes – habits of character developed by walking in obedience with the Father. That is how one can cling to joy even in the midst of suffering and sorrow. Through faith in God, Paul writes, “We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4).

Joy and hope have much in common. Christian hope is not blind optimism, but faith in a loving God. Wordsworth, as a father calling to his daughter, captured a sense of it with the line, “Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind.” Our earthly relationships with our parents are meant to give us a picture of our relationship with God, our heavenly Father. We can detect faint echoes of a promise from God, the perfect relational being: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15)

However, we ourselves are only human. No one is able to be perfectly joyful or hopeful all the time, except perhaps the man whom David Roberts calls a ‘Cheerful Cherub’: “The world can be going to pot around his ears, but he remains happy – or perhaps I should say ‘slap-happy’ – because his pious cheeriness has apparently robbed him of the ordinary human equipment for comprehending the facts of life.” Christians are sometimes guilty of throwing around phrases such as “Be joyful always!” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) when what they really mean is “Stop being sad already.” While they may even have had good intentions, they insensitively overlook or deny the severity of depression. Trying to ignore sorrow in others is at best irritating, at worst hurtful. Trying to ignore your own sorrow amounts to smiling and pretending to be happy when you know you are not. Part of why “Surprised by Joy” is so compelling is because Wordsworth deceives neither himself nor his audience. He humbly confesses to having forgotten his daughter – “even for the least division of an hour.” He admits that he had been “surprised by joy,” but also that he still felt “the worst pang that sorrow ever bore.” His heartfelt outpourings echo the language of the psalmists, who cried out to God exactly how they were feeling. God cannot fill us with His love and joy until we allow ourselves to be vulnerable before Him.

The Bible is not full of beaming saints, only ordinary people who struggled constantly with sin and their own emotions. Elijah, one of the greatest Hebrew prophets, was for a time suicidal. Soon after performing a miracle and witnessing all the glory of God, he became disheartened by opposition. “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life … He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors’” (1 Kings 19:3). All Christians must go through periods of doubt, because faith that has not been tested cannot be claimed. However, reading on to how God spoke personally to Elijah to encourage him, we see the wonderful truth: that God does not reject or give up on the depressed. In fact, he specifically provides for them – many verses in the Bible are specifically for the sorrowful. Jesus included in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” And Isaiah writes, “For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones” (Isaiah 49:13).

God’s compassion makes sense because He created us for joy, not sorrow. He made us for gladness, as well as hope. As Christians, the source of our hope is God. When man sinned against God, pain and suffering entered the world, and mankind faced death. Because He loves us, God paid the price of sin by sending Jesus to die in our place so that we could be forgiven. When Jesus rose again, He conquered death. When we choose to believe in Jesus, we have the hope of eternal life with God. We look forward to the promise in Isaiah 25:8 – “God will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces…”

Until then, Christians are no less susceptible to pain and sorrow, consequences of our fallen, hurting world. Returning to the sonnet, Wordsworth’s helplessness comes through in the final two lines, “Neither present time, nor years unborn/Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.” His despair reflects how we still find ourselves enslaved by our human brokenness: the tendency to stay in discouraged and depressed. At times, even as there is something in us that desperately needs to hold on to hope, another part of our nature acknowledges our unworthiness. We deny ourselves happiness and hope, saying that we don’t deserve it. In fact, it is in the nature of happiness and hope is that we cannot work to earn them – they can only be freely given. As Wordsworth takes us through the struggle many of us face in accepting joy, the poem becomes all the richer for his conflict and turmoil over finding joy in the midst of grief.

Wordsworth does not indicate what joy surprised him, but his question, “Through what power?” acknowledges that the joy did not come from himself. For Christians, the source of all joy is God. His presence shows us that hope can be found in the midst of hopelessness; His love lifts us out of despair. It is not in unfounded optimism, but rather hope in God that we can claim the Biblical promise for all circumstances: “Though the sorrow may last for the night, joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5b).

Julian, Roy. “Joy.” Google. Ed. McKenzie Study Center. 19 Oct. 2010. 19 Nov. 2010.
Moorman, Mary. William Wordsworth: A Biography; The Later Years 1803-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965.
Roberts, David E. The Grandeur and Misery of Man. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.
Ulmer, William A. The Christian Wordsworth. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
Ward, Alan B. “Sorrow and Love Flow Mingled Down.” Google. Ed. Precipice Magazine. 19 Oct. 2010. 19 Nov. 2010.

Inez Tan ’12 is an English and Economics major from New York, NY. She would like to thank Professor Peter Murphy and Courtney Atkinson for their invaluable guidance.

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